Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 22, 2017

© Sophie Lorenzo

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The other Egypt

Can you get off the beaten track in a country that's been a tourist hotspot for 3000 years?

Ask most Canadians what comes to mind when they think of Egypt and there's a good chance the response will be pyramids, camels and King Tut -- not exactly a 21st-century perspective. But that's not surprising when you consider that Egypt has been marketing itself to tourists for at least two millennia.

To North Americans, Egypt is mythic, an exotic and distant land. To Europeans, it's package-vacation heaven. Visitors arrive in throngs to dive the Red Sea or board one of the many small cruises that dart along the Nile between Luxor and Aswan to view the greatest concentration of ancient sites in the world. Archeologists may continue to unearth new finds, as they did this spring in the Valley of the Kings, but Egypt is hardly off the beaten track.

My husband and I set out to experience as much of the country as we could without being engulfed by the tide of tour buses. We knew we wouldn't be alone at the Sphinx or the legendary Temple of Karnak. But, by going a little further afield, we stumbled onto near-deserted sites and found a surprising sense of eternal Egypt.

Desert on the Nile
The easiest way to escape the tourists is to head south, way south, to Abu Simbel, the airport closest to the Sudanese border and miles from anything else. The area is known for two spectacular temples dedicated to Ramses II and his goddess-like concubine Nefertari ("the beautiful one").

The colossal temples with 20-metre-high statues (and a good dose of wall carvings depicting the pharaoh's military might) were part of Ramses II's public-relations campaign to awe the Nubian tribes with Egypt's greatness -- an effect it definitely had on us.

Originally carved straight into a mountain, Abu Simbel had to be relocated to a plateau 60 metres higher. In the late '60s, the Aswan High Dam flooded 500 square kilometres in the area, creating Lake Nasser. Fifty-four countries participated in the effort to preserve the most important ancient sites in Lower Nubia. As a result, the dam allowed Egypt to avoid devastating floods and droughts by regulating the cru of the Nile. It also connected remote villages to electricity for the first time.

Saving the temples of Abu Simbel meant moving mountains. Each sculpture and wall carving was cut with great finesse and reassembled in a newly built dirt- and gravel-covered dome which looks convincingly like a hillside. It is one of the most complete structures left behind by Ramses II, Egypt's legendary and virile (yes, the condoms are named after this father of 110) pharaoh. Whether it's because it was the first temple we saw, or because it was designed to impress, the moody, dark interior left a powerful impression that bordered on eerie.

It was at the foot of Abu Simbel that we boarded the MS Eugénie (tel: 011-20-2-516-9649; fax: 011-20-2-516-9646; www.kasribrim.com.eg), an elegant 19th-century-styled paddleboat. The meticulously decorated ship was the first to ply Lake Nasser and is still one of only four ships (including its sister, the art-deco Kasr Ibrm) that do. A cruise here is the antithesis of the floating parking lots that spring up along the banks of the Nile between Luxor and Aswan, where over 360 ships navigate a 220-kilometre stretch of river. Thanks to the dam, cruises on Lake Nasser are limited to the very few companies that are willing to build their ships on the lake.

Desert lakes like the Nasser are surreal. Apart from the occasional bush or stray mule, there isn't a living thing in sight, only this huge expanse of water surrounded by barren plains and mountains. We were quite literally sailing through a desert. Under the changing intensity of the sun, the sand and plateaus shifted from beige to orange. At night, the sky was dappled with stars all the way down to the horizon. By the second day, we had already forgotten that we weren't the only travellers in the country.

The pace of our journey afloat was serene. The Eugénie docked daily at the foot of ancient temples. Visits to archeological sites were timed for the best possible light and a near absence of other tourists. Our small group of passengers was accompanied by a guide who tied each temple to the political history of the region, along with its mythology and art, helping us to see the pictographs and columns as more than Indiana Jones backdrops.

Between outings, we lounged on the ship's top deck on cotton-filled "futons" before enjoying lunch buffets on the Eugénie's covered terrace and suppers in a turn-of-the-century dining room lit by alabaster sconces. The ship has a spa and a small rooftop pool to cool off in, and each room has its own wood-planked balcony.

On the last evening, we walked on bright orange sand between an alley of lions to the temple of Wadi es-Seboua. We clambered aboard a camel for a ride to the hilltop temple of Dakka, where we gazed out for miles at inlets, fields and sand, as the sunset wrapped a pale pink shawl around us.

Nubian Dreams
When we docked at the end of the four-day sail, we felt totally unprepared to return to the world of cars and crowds. Luckily, Aswan was a good compromise. The slightly rural character of this small city surprised us. Apart from the hotel-lined Corniche (the street bordering the Nile) and the secondary street that ran behind it, many of the streets we passed were unpaved, hard-packed earth (this is easy to maintain in a place where it never rains).

Girls bedecked in bright orange and green headscarves and shirts, with embroidered bell-bottom jeans chatted animatedly in groups as they strolled through the parks that line the riverfront. Kids in Aswan were among the friendliest we encountered, with disarming smiles and shy giggles as they asked our names and where we came from.

Aswan was our first glimpse at what we had avoided: riverboat parking, where tourists have to cross through the lobbies of three or four other boats to reach their own. We bypassed the ships and climbed aboard a felucca -- the traditional wooden sailboats that date back to the pharaohs -- for a cruise around the legendary stretch of river that was the setting for Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. The hotels disappeared behind us and that misty soft pink air that descends on the Nile at sunset washed over the palm trees and Nubian houses on the islands, turning the white sails of other feluccas to a golden hue.

We were curious to learn more about Nubian culture, whose history is so closely tied to Egypt's, and the next day, we took a ferry across the river to the village of Koti on Elephantine Island. We walked through narrow winding streets lined with brightly painted adobe houses. Children chased each other around the maze of corners and played games on the small rounded steps that are the only street furniture in a town where houses are an arm's breadth apart.

 

Back in Aswan, we headed to the Nubia Museum (tel: 011-20-97-319-333; www.numibia.net/nubia) where we looked at the sculptures, carvings and pottery from Africa's earliest black culture with a history going back to 3100 BCE. In a room filled with black-and-white photos of villages wiped out by the dam, we met two teen girls embarassed by their gregarious mother who pointed to a photo and gestured to us that it had been her village, and that the well water there was the sweetest in the land.

We had lunch on the terrace of the Nubian House Restaurant, high atop a hill in Aswan's southern suburbs. From that vantage point, it was particularly clear why the city is known for one of the loveliest stretches of the Nile. Dotted with lush islands, the river was flecked with the white sails of dozens of feluccas. Across the river, the greenery came to an abrupt end against a backdrop of sand.

More than two thirds of Egypt is covered by the Sahara and Sinai Deserts. It's a stark reminder that the Nile is the country's lifeline; this point was hammered home on our train ride up to Luxor, as we watched field after field end abruptly at the desert's edge, just a few hundred metres from the train tracks.

Digging Luxor
Luxor is the archeological epicentre of Egypt and the city where the greatness of the Pharaohs is still visible. At its heart is the Temple of Luxor, whose alley of sphinxes has a view of the corniche. A honeyed yellow at night, it is Egypt's answer to the Colosseum in Rome.

Several kilometres up the Nile is the sprawling temple complex at Karnak. The religious heart of the country for 1500 years, this is where pharaoh's had to pay their respects if they wanted their endeavours blessed not only by the gods, but their politically powerful priests as well. The complex is the size of New York's Central Park, but the spot everyone wants to linger in is Egypt's most awe-inspiring hypostyle court: a forest of 134 massive columns reaching 22 metres high and covered in hieroglyphs.

Across the river on the West Bank is where tourists and archeologists hit pay dirt: the fabled Valley of the Kings in Thebes. We spent a day with a driver exploring several sites in the area, including Deir el-Medina, home to the workers and artisans who built the Valley of the Kings, just a hike over the mountains.

The few tombs in the Valley of the Artisans which were open to the public, while small, were exquisitely preserved. The greatest painters of the day didn't skimp on their own resting sites, and the beautiful scenes of daily life depicted are still richly coloured. The scenes could have happened the day before in the fields on the way from Aswan. For the fellahin, the farmers whose lives are tied to the cycle of the Nile, daily tasks and tools have changed little from those of ancestors 20 centuries ago.

Just outside the Valley of the Queens is the stunning Deir el-Bahri, where the controversial Hatshepsut -- the only woman to have ruled as a pharaoh -- built an imposing funerary temple in the side of towering sandstone cliffs.

But the most memorable site in Thebes is the complex of temples at Medinat Habu. It's not as monumental as Karnak, but it hasn't been added to and remodelled a dozen times either, so visitors can still get a true sense of the ceremonial passage through each gated pylon and courtyard to the temple's final rooms. Incredibly, the colours on the open-air frescoes have remained vivid, giving you a sense of what the other more sober, sandstone temples were really meant to look like. The setting, against the backdrop of the Theban mountains, was particularly lovely at sunset.

Because the city of Luxor is tourist central, we had opted to stay on the left bank of the Nile, a few kilometres from the Valley of the Kings. There are a number of small hotels around the ferry landing, but we chose one even further afield. Settled amid fields and small towns where donkeys laden with sugarcane still amble home, the Hotel Al Moudira (tel: 011-20-123-251-307; fax: 011-20-123-220-528; www.moudira.com) resembles a Morrocan riad. Its 50 suites are clustered around a series of inner courtyards centred around fountains, each with a covered open-air living room.

Here, Lebanese-born Zeina Abhoukeir has created a resort that is unprecedented in the area. As a photographer and jewellery designer, Abhoukeir lived and travelled in Europe before falling in love with Luxor. She collected objects and architectural elements from area homes -- carved wooden lattices, full-storey doors and windows -- and brought back objects from souks and second-hand shops throughout Europe and the Middle East. The "Arabian Nights" atmosphere is so convincing, it's hard to believe that all these buildings are in fact just a few years old.

Each suite has been painted with trompe l'oeil frescoes and decorated with antiques and reproductions along a different theme. The bathrooms all have the hotel's signature domed ceiling with coloured-glass insets.

There is a heated outdoor pool that sits tucked into the eight-hectare garden of flower, herbs and orchards that feels like it could be another resort in itself. The pool pavillion includes a spa offering massages and a hammam for intense, foggy relaxation. After long, hot days pounding the paved dirt, Al Moudira was an oasis of peace, greenery and riotous colour on the edge of the desert.

Mules, minibuses and minarets
Cairo was our last destination before heading home. We had heard that the city had enough hustle and bustle to make New York City look like a sleepy town. But beyond the high-rise hotels lining the Corniche and the elegant streets downtown, that hustle is distinctly old school.

Roadside markets on makeshift stands sprawl down laneways in the older sections of the city, where barbers and butchers set up side by side in small, open-fronted kiosks. In Old Cairo, narrow streets and medieval gates seem to belong to a town much smaller than a capital city of 16 million.

We returned more than once to wander the warren of alleys in the Khan el-Khalili souk, past shops hawking papyrus scrolls, metalwork lanterns and miniature pyramids, to crowded alleys filled with household goods and discount clothing, and even a stall covered by a patchwork of flashy lingerie, which was inspected by women draped from head to toe in sober colours.

We walked up al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah street, the city's medieval thoroughfare, lined with mosques, schools, mansions and fountains. While the Dark Ages suffocated Europe, Cairo was already in its golden age, founding the world's first university a hundred years ahead of Europe -- Al-Azhar University, just south of the Khan el-Khalili -- and becoming a centre for scholars from as far as Moorish Spain.

We stopped at Beit as-Suhaymi, a wealthy trader's house dating back 300 years to the period of Ottoman rule. The house looks in on itself, towards small courtyards and gardens that are an unexpected oasis from the crowds and action of the souks. Its large reception rooms display intricate marble floors and wood work and several beautiful examples of mashrabiyyas, the carved wooden lattices that allow women to look out onto the street without being seen.

When we stepped out of the souk through the north gate, we found ourselves on a multi-lane expressway filled with traffic. Our eyes drifted above the minivans filled with teens singing to bouncy arabic pop under flashing garland light, to a small hill, where a country village seemed to have been dropped -- lock, stock and chickens. Some of the houses had palm-frond roofs; a goat wandered the edge of the slope nipping at weeds and paper. We later learned that this was the edge of the Bab as-Nasr cemetery and that squatters have settled in Cairo's cemeteries since the 14th century.

But our attention was drawn back to the roadway by the clip-clop of a mule pulling a small cart, doing its best to out-trot a string of trucks. Later that week, we would watch the disbelieving eyes of European travellers widen as their air-conditioned tour bus passed a donkey cart laden with produce, merging into the crush of traffic -- a sight straight from the walls of the Valley of the Artisans in the 21st century.

 

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